On Christmas of 1997, I received a few magazines as stocking stuffers. Being 11 years old at the time, they were all magazines targeted towards my demographic—full of crafts and activities and products that a young girl might be interested in. I remember one magazine in particular was fairly progressive, with an article about a company making technology-based toys and games for girls, and bemoaning the world of domestic girl toys like baby dolls and toy vacuum cleaners. (I ended up writing a letter to that company in appreciation, the early buddings of my interest in feminism. Though, ironically, the magazine’s critical article on what a bad role model Sailor Moon was first turned me into a Sailor Moon hater and troll, but ultimately only really served to introduce me to the show, which I ended up loving more than anything else through my pre-teen years.)
Being the holiday season, this magazine included a gift guide feature, and one of the products featured there would end up being a part of my life for the next 15 years. It was a game called The Stone, an online puzzle game. In order to play the game, you had to buy a physical pendant, a “Stone”, imprinted with unique characters. The magazine described in detail one of the visual puzzles on the website, called Finnegans Wake: an animated image of a ball of light travelling around a circular structure, while a dice turns over and over, a caption that says “THEY ARE DISCOVERING THE NATURE OF NATURE”, and two blank answer fields.
At my age, I hadn’t been exposed to very many puzzles or mysteries. But every time I did encounter one, something about it would light a fire in my heart. I can pinpoint a few early memories: playing Hugo’s House of Horrors with the family my grandpa was buying a house from. Playing Day of the Tentacle with my cousins in their basement. My older brother playing some adventure game where a riddle guarded a locked treasure chest. Later watching my brother play Riven, and deciding to rent it on my own and show it to a friend. The Stone seemed like all of these things amplified, it seemed so perfect.
Unfortunately, I was apparently a child of no agency. Even though my family had a computer with an internet connection (which I used constantly), and even though the game only cost something like $30, I somehow never got the idea in my brain that I might ask my parents to buy it for me. In fact, it never occurred to me to seek out anything puzzling or mysterious at all, even though I clearly loved those sorts of things. It was part of a long era of going with the flow, some sort of Que Sera, Sera dream that I’m only now beginning to wake up from.
As a result, I never bought the game. I would think about it from time to time. I would take out that article and re-read it. I might casually look around Electronics Boutique to see if they had started stocking the pendants. But no effort was ever made on my part. Somehow it just never seemed like an option.
Finally, in the summer of 2006 when I had just gotten home from my first year at college, I remembered The Stone again. This time, Google existed and I was a fairly savvy user. I had gotten used to the concept of looking something up when you wanted to know more about it. So I looked it up, and there it was. A website that had survived nearly ten years, through the bursting of the dot-com bubble, just waiting for me to finally arrive. Even better, registration was now free. I made my account, I was given my unique symbols, I was finally a part of The Stone.
When you first arrive at The Stone, you are confronted with a hexgaon grid called The Immediate. This is where you access the puzzles, represented by little white dots on the grid. Only 12 puzzles on the outer edges of the grid are available to you when you first start. The more you solve, the more puzzles are revealed to you, slowly working their way in towards the center of the grid.
The puzzles all follow the same format: an image and a text field for your answer. Sometimes the image is animated, plays sounds, or has some special interactive feature (some of which really pushed the creative boundaries of HTML at the time). The clues are in the title of the puzzle and the contents of the image.
There are two things one needs to determine when solving a Stone puzzle: the subject matter and the question being asked.
To find the subject of the puzzle, Google and Wikipedia are your best friends. You must observe what images and content the puzzle present, try to make connections, and then use online searches to discover a story. The subjects of the puzzles include important figures in history, unusual events and artifacts, scientific discoveries, and unexplained supernatural phenomena. With the website’s signature black background and often creepy subject matter, I often avoided playing after dark.
There are several routes for finding the question being asked. Sometimes the puzzle will present the question to you via a text caption, or even a question mark on the image itself. Sometimes the puzzle requires interaction to reveal a question. Other times, you simply have to guess. The Stone has a unique method for accepting answers and giving hints. If you try an answer, you will receive feedback. Most of the time, it’s a “Sorry, try again” sort of response, but there are a handful of words and phrases for each puzzle that will result in a “Clever” or a “Close”. A “Clever. Too Clever” response usually tells you that you’re getting warmer. A “Close, so close” response tells you that you’re close to the path you need to be on. Getting a Close or Clever is thrilling, and can help you make that final push to find the answer you really need. Even better, sometimes the Clevers will “taunt” you with a little bit of extra information (or a snarky comment).
I enjoyed playing The Stone casually for the next year or so, getting my boyfriend to help me with puzzles. We made quite a bit of progress, making it through about half of the 216 puzzles. We learned a lot of strange and interesting things, and had more than a few spooky experiences of our own while solving these puzzles. I started feeling inspired, like I wanted to make something similar. Something bigger than myself.
Then, in 2007, my third year of college, a group of players won the game’s Final Six Tournament. The Tournament started in 2005, and players signed up, for a fee, to try and be the first to solve the Final Six puzzles on the site. After the Tournament was won, there were a few other Tournaments and a small handful of extra puzzles released. Once these had been solved, The Stone announced it was shutting down.
It made sense, the game was over 10 years old. With no ads or other source of revenue, the website was only costing money, not bringing any back in. Any players who had paid for a Stone long ago had certainly gotten their money’s worth, and more. But there were still so many people like me who had only recently discovered (or re-discovered) the game and wanted to keep playing.
Over the years, one fan of The Stone had created a website of his own, called Scarecrow’s Field, to serve as a “notebook” for information on The Stone. The website eventually expanded to include fan-made puzzles and a strong community developed. When The Stone was closing, Scarecrow was given permission to continue hosting all of The Stone puzzles on his website. User data couldn’t be transferred, so players had to start from the beginning (which was surprisingly challenging!), but the website would remain almost completely the same as it was, and the vibrant community that The Stone had built would have a new home. On April 3, 2008, The Stone went dark, and those little white dots on the board lit back up at The Stone Monument.
My boyfriend and I caught up on our progress and kept solving. The further we got, the more difficult and abstract the puzzles became. I can look back on some of the later puzzles and remember a vague subject, where I was living when I was working on the puzzle, some important discoveries, but can rarely remember the answer. Clues became less sensical, answer pages became less informative, more rambling and paranoid. Puzzles started taking months for us to solve, with mostly unsatisfying results.
Finally, early last year, I finished the last puzzle before the Final Six, unlocking those last six puzzles in the game. I teamed up with two other players who were at the same point I was, and we began collaborating via Google Docs. It took us nearly an entire year, with lots of hand-holding from a generous senior player, but by February 25th of this year, we had all finally solved the Final Six and the Enigma. Six years after I had first started playing. Fifteen years after the game was first launched.
It’s hard to imagine anything online that has been around for fifteen years, especially something as unchanged as The Stone still is in its Monument form. That’s definitely part of the magic that the game still holds. That dark, secret, time capsule sort of feeling.
So the question you might be asking yourself is whether the game is still worth playing. That’s a good question, and has a complicated answer. I think the game is absolutely worth checking out, and worth enjoying what you can from it. There are plenty of enjoyable puzzles that will expand your mind and expose you to all kinds of strange and interesting bits of history. While you’re there you can also check out the community-driven Scarecrow’s Field which boasts 448 puzzles and an active puzzling community (I’ll be joining the party soon, once my group wraps up some remaining extra Stone puzzles).
But there is a certain point in the game, a point that is probably different for everyone, where the puzzles stop being quite as fun, for various reasons. One reason is the age of the game. The internet was a different place when these puzzles were made, and some of the answers can be very particular. An answer phrase might have been found on a page that was the top search result on a topic back in 1999, but that website may no longer exist and the phrase might have fallen out of use by now. (On the other hand, Google and especially Wikipedia give current players quite the upper hand on a lot of puzzles). Searching can often be frustrating and time-consuming.
Another point is when a player reaches some of the more abstract puzzles. Puzzles that deal with a concept rather than an event, person, or artifact. Puzzles that give strange answer pages that can be seen as enigmatic or just as nonsense. And a similar point can be when the puzzle requires an answer that literally seems like babble.
It’s at any of these points when the player must decide whether to stop playing and use their time in a more enjoyable way, or to keep going on a quest of completion for this strange, strange game. By the time I had reached what I might describe as my “point”, where the game was much more exhausting than it was fun, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice in the matter. I had to finish. I had to see what was on the other side, even though I knew it was going to disappoint. I had to put this game behind me properly. In the end, I’m glad I did. I met some great people along the way, and gained some unique insight into the creation of something like The Stone (very valuable, as I hope to create something similar one day). And I feel like I proved something to myself somehow. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as tenacious with anything as I have been with The Stone. And the lifespan and resurrection of the game show that many other players feel the same way.
There is so much more history and community and love inside the game than I’m able to account for here. I only joined in at the tail end of the party and wasn’t a big part of the community the way so many others were. Most of what I know about the history of the game I only read after the fact. But I can confidently say that The Stone has had a bigger impact on me and my interests than any other media I’ve ever encountered. The chilling feeling of mystery, the feeling that I was dealing with something greater than myself, the goosebumps I got from progressing on certain puzzles, and the community of people who loved these feelings just as much as I did, it all made for an extremely impactful experience. I’m so thankful to Scarecrow who has kept the site going since then, and who has grown a new community (that I can’t wait to join) in The Field. And I’m thankful to the creators of The Stone for making something so inspiring and sticking with it to the very end, despite all odds.
If you’re interested in trying out The Stone or The Field, head on over to Scarecrow’s Field (and feel free to PM nachan for a nudge!)